Like Buttah

“The Buddha’s message was simple yet profound. Neither a life of self- indulgence, nor one of self-mortification can bring happiness. Only a middle path, avoiding these two extremes, leads to peace of mind, wisdom, and complete liberation from the dissatisfaction of life.” ~Bhante Gunaratana (from “Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness”)

I have been thinking quite a lot lately about practice. My schedule at the yoga center is changing in February. I am going down to one day a week at Uru and will continue to teach my regular schedule at Chip’s. I spent no little time hunched over my journal while I made this decision. In the course of personal essays written in mostly illegible script I noted that spiritual practice and discipline are kinda like the process of making ghee.

Ghee, clarified butter, is a main ingredient in the 10 Day Yoga Detox we do three times a year in Kashi Atlanta. It’s a very dignified process by which you get to stabilize blood sugar, re-set the metabolism and sort out any habits around which you’d like to bring a little more awareness.

Ghee, as part of the diet, is lauded for its health benefits*. It is golden in color, a little yellow and smells like the backroom of a bakery. Its texture is glossy and slick and it leaves a nice sheen on vegetables. In the morning during the detox we drink it. We only drink it in relatively small portions which grow incrementally during the detox week. Sounds crazy, I know, but with a little almond milk and a dash of ginger powder it’s like liquid birthday cake – almost.

During one of the detoxes last year my slippery hands dropped the ghee jar, whipping most of its content across to kitchen floor. I didn’t know you could just go to the store and buy more so I learned how to make it on the internet.

It’s simple, really. You take a pound of unsalted butter and cook it down for about thirty minutes. It makes this little popping sound that sounds like fat raindrops landing on a low roof. To know if the ghee is ready you have to listen; you can’t look at it and tell. The popping becomes almost inaudible and there comes a point when there’s almost no sound. That’s when you take the pan off the stove and let it cool. There are three layers in the pot when it is cooled and this is where I started thinking about spiritual practice and in particular the path of yoga as I have experienced it.

The top layer is this frothy foam that you skim off the top. It is called “catch” and in India it’s sometimes mixed with sugar and is a sweet treat. This top layer of ghee that you have to scrape off is like the euphoric phase at the beginning of one’s love affair with yoga. This is the rainbow and unicorn stage, wherein everything is wonderful and happy and if it isn’t you better suppress it until no one is looking, because that shit ain’t yogic.

It is here that it serves us well to remember that unicorns are massive magical creatures with a sharp protrusion from their foreheads. I’m just saying, if you met a unicorn in real life it would probably be a little terrifying, even if it was friendly. Rainbows are often products of stormy weather and are a combination of sunlight and the shadow of a fine mist combined. But still, rainbows and unicorns it is.

It is best to scrape this layer off sooner rather than later but we get caught in thinking that this layer is the product of our efforts, like the rainbow and unicorn phase is where it’s at. This foam is not the goal, it should be scraped off, preferably with a hand strainer.

On the bottom of the ghee pot there are lactose solids. It’s heavy and brown and reminds me of the skillet my great-grandmother used to cook bacon in. She’d save this grease like it was gold to cook everything else with it. Dear Reader, you do not want to save this portion of the ghee making process, just leave it there. Better yet, pour it down the drain.

This heavy sludge at the bottom represents the opposite end of rainbows and unicorns. It is the this shit ain’t working phase of practice. If you have been at it long enough, if you have sat for meditation for more than five minutes ten or so consecutive days in a row you might know what I’m talking about. This is the heaviness, the unworthiness and the same old repetitive thoughts that will fall away if we let them go. The pound of unsalted butter has no problem letting this stuff go. It takes heat and the willingness to stay in the pot, which is why yoga practice and spiritual discipline are referred to as tapas which translates “to burn” or “fiery discipline”.

Between the froth and the sediment is the ghee. To get at it you scrape crap off the top and then, carefully, pour the clarified butter into a nice container. You have to angle the pot and hold your mouth a little crooked to keep from pouring any of the sediment into the pretty little jar with your clarified butter. With a little practice you’ll get the hang of it.

I think this is the part that represents the real, essential being. The space in the middle is buoyed above the featureless solid hunks that we think is who we really are. I thought about listing examples but decided to let you fill in the blank with anything that holds your heart down or keeps it closed. That’s the stuff that can go to the bottom of the pot. Your only job is to cook it long enough and then, when it is boiled down, to let it go.

I think we spend a lot of the first years of a spiritual discipline focusing between these two phases. There comes a time when, perhaps for just a second, we catch a glimpse of space between thoughts. The first handful of times I heard my Teacher talking about the space between thoughts I didn’t quite understand what she was talking about. After a few years of looking for that space I have come to think of that as an access point to our smooth, golden essence revealed from the heat of our discipline and devotion.

I don’t think we need to torment ourselves for being in one space or another, either. If I am stuck in a sunshine and lollipop stage I just try to remember that it isn’t the goal and to just keep practicing. When I’m happy I must practice. When I’m sad, pissed, confused or elated also I must practice. I think this is how we arrive at clarity and taste the space between thoughts – which is delicious, like buttah.

“This atman (Self), resplendent and pure, whom the sinless sannyasins behold residing within the body, is attained by unceasing practice of truthfulness, austerity, right knowledge and continence.”  – Mundaka Upanishad

*From the Yoga Detox Daily Email – 10 health benefits of ghee

  1. Flushes old bile from the body.
  2. Stimulates the liver to make new bile, so 94% of old toxic bile is not re-absorbed.
  3. Scrubs the intestines of toxins and bad bugs.
  4. Supports the primary source of energy and immunity for the cells of the gut.
  5. Supports the health of the beneficial bacteria in the gut that make butyrate, a short chain fatty acid (SCFA) that the intestinal tract thrives on, as it helps to protect the integrity of the gut wall, and then some!
  6. Lubricates and softens the hardened tissues of the body.
  7. Pulls stored fat-soluble toxins and molecules of emotion out of the body.
  8. Encourages fat metabolism and weight loss.
  9. Supports stable mood and energy levels.
  10. Supports the body’s natural defense mechanisms against bad bacteria and overgrowth.
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2017, Day 2

Monday, as the second day of the new year, was dazzled by storms. I do not like storms. I like rain. I like rainy days in which I do not have to leave my house. I like thunder in the distance and perhaps a sharp pop of lightening as a way of reminding me of unseen marvels just waiting to reveal themselves. I do not like whirling wind that drops chunks of ice through shivering tree branches.

Monday, I was at the studio at three o’clock to tie silk tinsel in someone’s hair. While working in the lounge I hear something like a bag of rocks emptied onto the roof. I am afraid to look out the window.

The front door got sucked open by an outside vacuum and another rock or two pelted the building. My young client and I move to an interior space along with other hanger-outers at the studio. Folks with smart phones start looking at weather alerts and subsequent warnings. With my heart alerting me to new levels of anxiety I realize, with no little detachment, that if we’re about to be struck by any type of weather, by the time it is on anyone’s phone it’ll be too late.

Because there are children in the room I keep this to myself. Instead, I try to regain some control of my pulse and blood pressure. The studio owner, standing there with her phone in its pink case, puts her hand on my back. It is an intimate feeling to know that she can feel my heart beat its rapid staccato. Imagine, dear Reader, someone able to feel your heartbeat right this moment. How close would they have to be, and how wild would its rhythm have to be, to share itself with someone else?

My anxiety thus exposed by my pounding heart, I mention with a surprisingly casual air, “If no one shows up for my 4:30 class then I want to cancel my 6 o’clock.” It is reasonable, after all, to imagine that no one would dare tempt the weather for a yoga class. There are, on a given day, about thirty nine opportunities to take a yoga class within about a ten and a half mile radius. Just saying.

Three people show up. I have the audacity to be surprised. After twenty some odd years of working with the public in various venues they still manage to surprise me. Let me say, never have I ever not wanted to teach so badly. I felt ill and heavy, like someone poured lead into my guts and it cooled and hardened into smooth, metallic fear.

I am nothing if not professional. Perhaps too business oriented these days, but that topic is for later. While I walk down the ramp to teach, my mind whirls with the same agitations as the wind; I feel unreasonably mad at the people who are there to take class.Two of the people are teacher trainees and I want to tell them they don’t want this job. I want to stay in the interior of the building where I can’t see the angry wind, where I can only hear and feel my heart beat.

I remember something from my teacher training that has served me well. On a Wednesday about halfway through my training, my instructor flew into the studio with only moments to spare before class. He’d had to drive from Destin to Fort Walton and got stuck in traffic the likes of which can only be seen in Florida in Summer. He was in a mood. A bad one.

I knew we were in for it when he did a whole bunch of plank poses and down dogs and standing poses right at the beginning. Suddenly, the standing poses became like a lightening rod for everyone in the room, including my pissed off teacher. While he was teaching his voice came back to the timbre I knew. It was like the grounding quality of an intense standing pose practice effected him, even though he was only in the room guiding the practice.

He held the trainees after class and talked about standing poses. He said, and I’ll never forget it, “When you don’t feel like teaching yoga that day, teach standing poses.”

Naturally, I wondered what in the hell could ever happen that would make me not want to teach yoga. Let me tell you, lots of things happen all the time that make me not want to teach yoga. I would not still be in this line of work were it not for the many things that happen that make me wonder what might happen if I continue to teach yoga, weather permitting.

I have another class to teach this stormy Monday evening.  I think certainly no one will show up. Oh yes they do. I unroll my mat because I am teaching Kali Natha yoga, a scripted yoga practice that I practice with the class. The weather has become worse. I recall a poetic something of black rainbows and sideways lightening when Swami taught a weekend on Living the Reality of Shiva.

There is a blond woman on the front row with a high pony tail and exhilarated look on her face. She likes Kali Natha yoga and says something that reminds me of the Rudra Asana series. Rudra is the storm God, an aspect of Shiva – the Lord of Yoga, who can assist with controlling the seemingly untamable storms of the mind.

Why yes, dear Reader, I did pause before committing to practice with three other souls a yoga series devoted to a storm god while it sounded like the world was getting torn apart outside. At the same time, I was committed to the practices, rain or shine, whether I liked it or not. I decided to trust the deity who came forward in that moment.

Yes, there was another pause when I went into downward facing dog and saw out the window, from upside down, lightening flash like an arrow into the ground and thunder rattle the windows in the exact same moment. I wondered if I shouldn’t have chosen a different asana series, something like, oh I don’t know, a tranquil lotus sequence or perhaps a series dedicated to a calm lake.

I don’t think there are many of those, however. I don’t think Kali Natha Yoga has many sequences to tame the tranquil lotus or admire the still pond, though I might be proven wrong. The sequences I have learned so far are designed to move the yogi straight into the heart of the moment accompanied by God – the Storm God, the Goddess of Time, the Jungle Mother, the Fire Lotus.

I hadn’t thought of this practice this way before. This teaching is one of those unseen marvels that keep me on the mat. This is one of those times in which I might not have engaged with the practice as deeply had it not been such a heightened moment. This is one of those times I am aware of the answer to the question; what might happen if I keep teaching yoga? I will grow.

After class, with a calm air outside the studio, I remembered why I fell so in love with this practice. Storms battered Pensacola the rest of the night, but there was a quiet so pervasive that snaked through the room after practice it was as though we were the quiet itself and that we were in it together.